Astronomy alum chosen for 51 Pegasi b Fellowship

J.J. Zanazzi, Ph.D. ’18, has been selected as a 2022 51 Pegasi b Fellow. The 51 Pegasi b Fellowship provides exceptional postdoctoral scientists with the opportunity to conduct theoretical, observational, and experimental research in planetary astronomy. The fellowship award provides up to $385,000 of support for independent research over three years.

“It is great to see our Cornell alumni recognized for their excellence in research,“ said Jonathan Lunine, David C. Duncan Professor and chair of astronomy in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Zanazzi’s research focuses on predicting the ways planets perturb their birthplace environments to understand the chaotic processes that sculpt exoplanetary systems. In particular, he is intrigued by distortions in protoplanetary disks—the birthplaces of planet--and calculates the long-term consequences of tilting, warping, and unusual orbits for stars and other bodies within disks.

A prediction Zanazzi made that a protoplanetary disk orbiting at a steep incline around two stars would eventually “stand on edge” instead of flattening to the stars’ plane was confirmed by observation, as reported in a paper published in PNAS.

“As an astrophysical theorist, it sometimes feels like I’m shouting into the void, especially when waiting for groundbreaking observations,” said Zanazzi. “I remember feeling completely shell shocked when an observation found that a bizarre scenario I predicted actually existed.”

In his 51 Pegasi b fellowship, Zanazzi will further explore ideas for detecting forming planets via signs of disk and star distortions, such as a color change in the disk or a flickering star. He will use open-source code to model warped and eccentric disks and examine gravitational impacts over time. He will also gather data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), and Kepler missions to refine his theories.

“In environments where something is pulling at a star, it can become distorted and flicker. I’m motivated to see how this idea can support the search for planets in protoplanetary disks,” Zanazzi said.  

Currently, Zanazzi is a Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics postdoctoral research associate at the University of Toronto. For his 51 Pegasi b Fellowship he will be hosted at the University of California, Berkeley

The 51 Pegasi b Fellowship was established in 2017 by the Heising-Simons Foundation, and named for the first exoplanet discovered orbiting a Sun-like star.

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J.J. Zanazzi sitting on a white wooden bench underneath a leafless tree, writing in a notebook; smiling.